August 19, 2015 ALEX NAGORSKI




James Lecesne’s list of accomplishments will make you feel like the laziest person on earth.

A seasoned Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran with Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards under his belt, Lecesne is an Emmy-nominated television actor/writer, and a three-time novelist. He is also the executive producer of the 2009 documentary film, After The Storm, about the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the lives of twelve young people in New Orleans. On top of that, he wrote the screenplay for the short film, Trevor, which not only won him an Academy Award, but also inspired the founding of the Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevent and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth.

Now, Lecesne has returned to the New York stage for the limited 12-week Off-Broadway run of his touching, heartfelt, and important 90-minute one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Take that, James Franco.

Based upon Lecesne’s own young adult novel, Absolute Brightness takes place in a small New Jersey town that has been shaken to the core by the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey. Lecesne portrays every character as they individually try to piece together the puzzle surrounding what happened to Pelkey, and reflect upon how he changed their lives – and inadvertently, the town itself. As these characters think back on their interactions and relationships with Pelkey, they realize just how much he challenged those around him simply by refusing to conform to any pre-conceived notions of who he should be and instead always stayed true to himself.

When Detective Chuck DeSantis, the show’s narrator, reveals that Pelkey’s body was found at the bottom of a lake and that he was undoubtedly murdered, it’s up to Pelkey’s family, friends, and neighbors to honor his memory by celebrating the same vivaciousness that tragically ended up killing him. As DeSantis speaks to these individuals in an attempt to solve the mystery of Pelkey’s death, he encounters people like Pelkey’s aunt, the owner of a local hair salon, her timid 16-year-old daughter, an elderly German man who owns a clock repair shop, a mobster’s widow, a teenage bully who is more interested in video games than remembering his former peer, and the head of the drama school where Pelkey was rehearsing The Tempest prior to his murder.

“Several years after publishing the novel, I found myself still thinking about this story,” Lecesne told New York Theatre Review, explaining his decision to adapt his work for the stage. “So much had happened since then to make me aware of the problems of bullying and its effect on kids who insist on being themselves. And so I began to explore how I might tell the same story for a more adult audience, from a different point of view and on my feet in front of an audience.”

There was the special difficulty of deciding which characters he could play. “Let’s just say that the idea of portraying certain characters presented a daunting challenge – would the audience accept me, a mature male, as say a 16-year-old girl and without a touch of makeup or costume?” he added. “But one thing I’ve learned from my years of experience is that nothing is more inspiring than the ability of a theater audience to make the necessary imaginative leap.”

Yet Lecesne makes that leap seem far from difficult. He morphs into these characters with hardly any transition time, and the way he fully embodies them is truly a marvel to behold. Instead of relying on costume changes or props, Lecesne radically changes his voice and physicality to properly encapsulate each character. His remarkable attention to the smallest of details completely transforms him right before the audience’s eyes – despite the fact that he never leaves the stage or changes out of the simple tucked in button-down and dress pants he wears throughout the show. In fact, his portrayal of each character is so convincing and spot-on that it’s easy to forget that there is only one person on stage. The exceptional and colorful ways that he brings each of them to life with such distinct personalities and mannerisms is beyond inspired; his performance never wavers, no matter if he’s playing a man, woman, child, old person, or anyone in between.

Another part of what makes Absolute Brightness such a fascinating piece of work is how it tackles the ripple effect that Pelkey’s death has. For some characters that knew the boy directly, his tragedy highlights how much change and introspection is needed to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. And for those who didn’t know him personally, his story still resonates as one that will forever change and shape their town. They realize that his bravery brought out their own cowardice, and that their insistence that he “tone down” his self-expression didn’t help him – and instead only fueled the hate that led to his demise. The only silver lining is that what happened to Pelkey opened the eyes of an entire community that might have otherwise never known better than to continue rejecting someone purely for telling their truth.

Featuring a gorgeous original score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening; American Psycho), Absolute Brightness is a one-of-a-kind and timeless theater experience that will stay with you long after Lecesne’s final bow. It’s a powerful story that dares its audience to defy convention and encourages them to embrace their true selves, no matter how much that might conflict with social expectations. And above all, it reminds us that love will always outlast hate.

Click here to buy your tickets to The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, now playing through October 4th at the Westside Theatre in New York City.


One of the greatest storytellers of his generation, James Lecesne portrays every character in a small Jersey shore town as they unravel the story of Leonard Pelkey, a tenaciously optimistic and flamboyant 14 year old boy. A luminous force of nature whose magic is only truly felt once he is missing, Leonard becomes the unexpected inspiration for a town as they question how they live, who they love and what they leave behind.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a new play written and performed by James Lecesne; directed by Tony Speciale (Drama Desk and GLAAD Media Award Nominee); with original music by Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening).

A portion of all full price and premium tickets will be donated to The Trevor Project.


Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.